|Sylvia Hitchcock Carson, Miss Universe 1967
Whatever Happened To...? by Fred Abel
‘I went back to the reunion one year and got the award for Most Unlikely to Change. Why was that, I wondered? Because of the way I was.’
– Sylvia Hitchcock Carson
Her affect was, and remains to this day, akin to the summer rains that regularly fall in her Central Florida hometown of Lake Wales. By that, I mean a positive life-giving force with no need to justify its existence, because it can be relied upon to deliver its nurturing elixir and leave an ineffable feeling of refreshment in its wake. With her rare combination of charisma, pageant-winning refinement, and down-to-earth warmth, Sylvia Hitchcock Carson continues to shower sunshine on all those she touches in her life, some 37 years after her historic moment, when, as a University of Alabama coed and pageant neophyte, she first stormed into the national consciousness on her way to international pageant acclaim.
|ONCE AND ALWAYS MISS UNIVERSE
Indeed, for the pageant-savvy observers of 1967, Sylvia Louise Hitchcock’s accomplishments must have seemed to be some irresistible force of nature. In 12 months, she rose from pageant obscurity to its pinnacle — taking the titles at Miss Alabama USA, Miss USA, and, ultimately, Miss Universe 1967. At the time, she was only the fourth American woman to accomplish that feat.
And yet, one wonders, whatever happens to a Sylvia Hitchcock after all the fanfare passes? To find out, Pageantry invited the woman herself to share her story, and in the process, help us inaugurate a feature, “Whatever Happened To…,” which we intend to continue in future issues.
In a long conversation over a crab cakes lunch and then coffee back at the Pageantry offices, as we review her scrapbooks filled with memories, it is apparent that, while Sylvia has clearly integrated her Miss Universe identity into her life, her fundamental character — the infectious, positive charm, the astonishing recall and energy in storytelling, the way she cherishes family life — remains at the core of who she is, and probably is the reason why she overcame the odds to win the 1967 titles. She credits her winning personality to her role models: her parents and her “Aunt Sylvia,” Mrs. Gardner Little — “a caregiver from the word go,” Sylvia says — whom she admired and tried to emulate growing up. Those qualities allow her to successfully balance her many public roles — as a pageant celebrity, a model, and an artist with wide-ranging intellectual interests — with her devotion to her husband of 34 years, inventer William Carson, and their three children: Jonathan, 29, Christianne, 25, and Will, 19.
Like most Miss Universe pageant winners, she began her reign jetting around the globe, the central attraction in a parade that, at the time, would routinely stop traffic and incite mob behavior. Says Sylvia, “In Ecuador, when they announced I was coming, there was a stampede. When I was in Japan, I was in this restaurant, and they had to call the police to get me out, because so many people were outside, pushing and kicking one another, just waiting to touch me.”
After her reign ended, she dove into the New York fashion scene, signing with a major talent and modeling agency. She soon realized that she had other interests. “If I had aspired to be an actress,” she says, “I would have stayed in New York. I had a period in the fast lane — parties with celebrities. I met Oleg Casini, and people like that. But, it just wasn’t for me.”
Back in Miami, Sylvia was taping a promotional spot for educational TV, wearing a brightly colored outfit that caught the eye of a gentleman who had left the staging area only to return for a cup of coffee, an inventer named William Carson. He waited for Sylvia to finish the interview, and then introduced himself. They talked, and she could see he wanted to ask her out, though she had just broken up with her boyfriend and wasn’t thinking about dating so soon. When she mentioned her Miss Universe title, though, he had a ready response, she recalls. “He said, ‘Well, I just invented a fruit harvester, and now that I’m thinking about it, it’s universal, and your title could help promote it.’ And I said to myself, ‘Oh my, anybody who could come up with a line like that must be pretty good!’ ”
They were married in 1970; she was 24 at the time. For Sylvia, who had grown up in a close-knit family with four other brothers, it was the true dream come true. “All my life, all I wanted to do was have eight children,” she says with a laugh. “I had three, and I was sick the entire time with each of them, but I wouldn’t change any of that for anything in the world.”
At the same time her husband was busy patenting 23 of his inventions and she was raising three children, much of Sylvia’s pageant-savvy public service was also taking root in her Central Florida community, where she has resided since her marriage. She became involved in lecturing the young and disadvantaged on appearance and improvement makeovers in order to bolster their self-esteem. She served as a leader in the Council of 101 and the 240,000-member Chi Omega national fraternal organization; choreographed and directed a $7.5 million Salvador Dali jewelry fashion show to benefit the Orlando Museum of Art; lent her considerable artistic talents to civic beautification; directed a Bicentennial Citrus Queen Pageant; and took leading roles in the symphony guild, YMCA board of directors, and cancer-fund drives, among others.
On occasion, she acted in commercials and modeled for print ads in Florida, but she never flew far from the nest. “I had a good babysitter,” she says. “And my mother helped, but I wasn’t gone much, maybe two to three days out of the month.” It turns out this Miss Universe loved being the homeroom mothers’ rep, the accomplished amateur tennis player, and the inspiring role model to her children. High on her list of accomplishments, she mentions her younger son’s quarterbacking his high school football team to a championship, her daughter’s horse-riding skills, and her oldest son’s promising invention. “I just got involved in whatever,” she explains. “That’s what I thought it was all about.”
This day, as we pack up the glamorous Miss Universe memorabilia — the classic rhinestone crown and scepter, a huge bronze winner’s trophy, the albums full of yellowed press clippings — she recalls many fond moments when the Miss Universe title pulled her back into the limelight: Puerto Rico and Ecuador invited her back, and she still makes time for judging pageants. “I returned quite frequently to Miss Universe as one of the alumnae,” she says. “I went back to the reunion one year, and I got the award for Most Unlikely to Change. Why was that, I wondered? Because of the way I was. When I meet somebody, I don’t think I am ever in awe — except for [the late legendary Alabama football coach] Bear Bryant.”
One time, long after her 1967 victory, Sylvia remembers, she was playing a mother in a commercial for the Wet ‘n Wild theme park, and the director, whom she recalled meeting during her appearance years ago in a Doug Sanders Golf Classic in Georgia, didn’t recognize her until she reminded him of the event. As Sylvia explains it, without the slightest hint of ego, “I was supposed to be playing the mother, but I guess I wasn’t looking so glamorous that day.” But even as she tells the story, Sylvia Hitchcock Carson reveals not a scintilla of doubt about who she was, is, and always will be.
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